Pilgrims and Pandemics: Hajj, Umrah, and MERS

Click here to check out my blog post for George Washington University‘s International Health Regulations Blog!

The Hajj and Umrah, the two largest pilgrimages of Islam, both take place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This presents a public health concern, as millions of people from all over the world will be coming to the country that has reported the largest number of MERS-Coronavirus cases.

Public Health Emergency: Influenza 2013

Members of the U.S. Army receiving the flu vaccine. Source: Flickr Creative Commons, (C) U.S. Army

Members of the U.S. Army receiving the flu vaccine. Source: Flickr Creative Commons, (C) U.S. Army

Recently the State of New York and the City of Boston have both declared public health emergencies. A Pennsylvania hospital (Lehigh Valley) has set up surge tents outside the emergency rooms to handle any patients with a fever. While last year’s flu season was incredibly mild, this year has been very different. The flu is becoming much more widespread much earlier in the season, and the strain in question is causing severe illness. for example, in Boston 25% of reported cases (a case is reported any time someone tests positive, so any time you go to a doctor and get swabbed you are being tested, and those data are being reported) are requiring hospitalization.

What is a Public Health Emergency?

Essentially, a Public Health Emergency is declared when a state or city (or the entire country) needs to release resources (monetary resources, vaccine stockpiles, healthcare providers, ect.) to handle a threat. These are bad situations (or imminent threats) requiring lots of people, supplies, and funds to deal with. For example, part of the emergency declaration in NYC allows pharmacists to give vaccines to children between the ages of 6 months and 18 years. Ordinarily  pharmacists can only administer vaccines to adults, but since children are considered an at-risk group for severe influenza the emergency declaration waived that regulation. Continue reading

Deadly Fungal Meningitis Outbreak: What is it and what you can do

States where healthcare facilities received contaminated lots of steroids (C) CDC

This post was originally published at Mind the Science Gap on Oct. 25, 2012.

As of 4:30 PM on October 24th, 24 deaths have been reported due to a multi-state outbreak of fungal meningitis (swelling of the membranes of the brain or spine caused by a fungal infection). It is believed that the culprit is contaminated steroids, specifically methylprednisolone acetate, an injectable steroid to treat back and joint pain. While investigation of the causes of this outbreak is ongoing, specific lots of steroids made by the New England Compounding Company (NECC) have been pulled from use. NECC has since voluntarily ceased operations, recalled all products, and surrendered its pharmacy license.

What is Causing the Outbreak?

The primary causative organism is Exserohilum rostratum, a fungus typically found on plants and in the soil. It rarely causes disease in humans, and usually when it does infect humans it results in skin or sinus infections. This has made it difficult to provide precise information on when to expect symptoms to occur; the data are not available on fungal meningitis caused by E. rostratum. Continue reading